An ornithologist, an editor, and a vice-president walk into a conference room . . . It sounds like the beginning to an especially crappy joke, but there was no mirth in this group on the dreary spring day in New York when our protagonists met to debate a matter of great import. They were prepared to harvest heads, not laughs. What could possibly drive professional geeks into a blood frenzy?

Bird names. Of course.

A group of magazine editors, scientists, and communications professionals, convened by Audubon’s VP of Content, Mark Jannot, was asked to hash out, once and for all, whether Audubon would use title case (that is, capitalizing the first letter of each word) for common bird names. You can read Jannot’s account of ruffled feathers and rooster-like posturing here. (Spoiler: Audubon is switching to title case across all of its channels, including stories published in Audubon magazine.) The entire dustup was an eye-opener for me, a lifelong birder but a relatively recent hire at Audubon. Before that meeting, I thought magazine copy editors were the most rule-crazy, uptight cranks going when it came to orthography. Little did I know that ornithologists share that trait. Listening to each camp snipe at the other, over rules that nobody else in the world cares about, made me question my allegiance to either side.

As someone with more than a decade’s experience working in magazine editing, grokking the impulses of copy editors is easy: Any given rule is either in the style manual (one of a half-dozen stylebooks—but, in any given copy editor’s case, only a particular one of the those) or it’s not (and therefore it’s not a rule). To understand the ornithologist’s fervor for majuscules required some research, so I dug up a copy of the very first Check-List of North American Birds, published by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1886. I read the entire Code of Nomenclature—all 69 action-packed pages of rules for binomial nomenclature; a rejection of the strict adherence to same; orthography generic and specific; the Romanization of Latin, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Norwegian, etc. names; the propriety of suffixes; and, surprisingly, the appeal to create vernacular names for all species. It’s the kind of text that a nerd’s nerd would hold up as the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement, so it’s almost charming to see that final plea, literally the last paragraph of the entire 69-page “this is how we must do things in the bird business” argument, asking ornithologists to provide birds names that the common man can remember and understand.

To wit:

§ 16. Of the Selection of Vernacular Names.

RECOMMENDATION X. Vernacular names, though having no standing in scientific nomenclature, and being not strictly subject to the law of priority, have still an importance that demands the due exercise of care in their selection, especially with reference to their fitness and desirability.

REMARKS — It not infrequently happens that well-known, abundant, and familiar species have several nearly equally familiar vernacular designations, in which case the most euphonious and otherwise most fitting should be selected and given prominence. [. . .] Since many species known to science are without vernacular names, otherwise than unknown barbarous ones, and since it is necessary, or at least desirable, sooner or later to supply them with vernacular designations, these should be as far as possible formed by translating, or in part adopting, the technical names of science; and authors of monographic works, like, for example, the British Museum 'Catalogue of Birds,' or faunal works, like many which might be named (but which unfortunately in too many cases ignore vernacular names), would do their fellow naturalists, and through them the public, a favor by considerately supplying vernacular designations to species, particularly in such departments of Zoology as Mammalogy and Ornithology, and indeed Vertebrates generally, together with the better known or more exemplary forms among Invertebrates.

The one thing the Code of Nomenclature doesn’t cover is capitalization of common names. Genus and species names, sure. The authors demand a capital for the former and a lowercase letter for the latter. It was apparently understood, even then, that common names simply must be capitalized. Indeed, when one scrolls down into the checklist itself, the first bird is written Western Grebe. (Why the 1886 checklist begins with “Diving Birds” was beyond the scope of my research and, thus, this article.)

I asked Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham if he knew whence the capitals. He checked a book from 1873 and found title case throughout, so it clearly predated the 1883 founding of the AOU. Stumped, we both agreed to blame the British. Much of the AOU’s Code of Nomenclature is based on British zoological canon, so this makes at least as much sense as anything else we could divine. (Our second inclination was to blame the Germans and their penchant for capitalizing all nouns.)

The Check-List of North American Birds has since 1886 seen a number of subsequent editions; currently it’s on its seventh edition, fifty-fourth supplemental. It lays out, in plain English, the rules under which all ornithologists must labor when writing about their avian study objects. Which is nice, but North America ain’t the whole world.

The task to make a global English-language checklist for birds, under the auspices of the International Ornithological Congress, fell to former Audubon chief scientist Frank Gill and his colleague Minturn Wright III. The project to create vernacular world lists started in 1990, and comprehensive checklists for French names and Spanish names were quickly completed, in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Riding herd on the English common names was far more complicated, and a full 15 years elapsed before Gill and Wright published Birds of the World: Recommended English Names. Fifteen years of quibbling and digging, of scrutinizing and rejecting. And for their trouble, fussbudgets at the AOU groused that Gill and Wright employed improper hyphenation.

Like any good scientific throw-down, this beef played out at regional meetings and in the pages of ornithology journals. The argument of the AOU basically boiled down to “You didn’t use our style.” Fair enough. Any copy editor worth his or her red pen understands that a style guide is an organization’s One Ring. Gill’s response, however, represents the kind of glorious high-handed pedantry that one expects of a top-flight scientist. Writing in The Wilson Journal of OrnithologyGill opines:

“Given the dynamic state of our knowledge about relationships among bird species, we and many colleagues prefer to follow plain, correct, and intuitive English, rather than to overload the orthography of English names of birds with phylogenetic inference through hyphens.[1] We still can construct group names as single words and hyphenate them sparingly to avoid awkward constructions […]. It seems time to retire the persuasion of Parkes (1978)[2] that hyphens add taxonomic value to the English names of birds.”

“Plain, correct, and intuitive English” brings us back to capitalization, not to mention the airing of grievances in letters to the editor. It should also be noted that not every birder is fond of the long-held capitalization paradigm. In 1983 Anselm Atkins, a longtime birder, ex-Trappist monk, and former academic, complained in the pages of the AOU’s publication The Auk, “As Humpty-Dumpty said [. . .], it is a question of who is to be master. In this instance, let us surrender to the dictionary. Until we do, we ornithologists, with our Important Capitals, continue to look Curiously Provincial.”

Atkins was unsuccessful in his efforts to convince The Auk and the AOU to drop its use of the title case, but the debate never really died. Whereas Jannot’s decree that Audubon magazine must adopt title case occurred in April, in May, Wikipedia went the other direction and shot down the title-case proponents after a long, bitter battle; all bird-related Wikipedia articles must thenceforth use sentence case for common names. Both camps claim that their method provides the most clarity to readers—an admirable adherence to the maxim set forth in 1886 by the AOU’s Code of Nomenclature. Judging by the long history of disputes regarding names, I seriously doubt that these decisions will be the last word on the matter.

[1] Gill argued that hyphens do not always add extra clarity. “Consider green suitcases of different sizes. Why use ‘big green-suitcase’ and ‘little green-suitcase’ when ‘big green suitcase’ and ‘little green suitcase’ are simpler and perfectly clear? Similarly, Long-tailed Wood Partridge (Dendrortyx macroura) is clear without an extra hyphen (wood-partridge), as are English bird names such as Pygmy Hanging Parrot (Loriculus exilis), Wilson’s Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus), and African Green Pigeon (Treron calvus).” 

[2] Parkes suggested in 1978 in The Auk that groups of related birds have hyphenated names. The problem, as Gill states, is two-fold. First, it’s ugly. Second, it suggests an evolutionary link between bird groups that may not actually exist: “Over the course of time, Parkes’ (1978) formulation based on some general sense of ‘belonging to a group’ has evolved into firm advocacy and editorial policy for use of hyphens in group names as hypotheses of monophyletic evolutionary relationships.”


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